East Idaho residents who enjoy RV camping, OHV riding and hunting in the mountains of Clark County face the loss of a popular destination: the Centennial Mountains region between I-15 and Kilgore.

Tony Huegel

Tony Huegel

The threat isn’t from conservationists seeking to close popular roads, OHV trails and campsites in the area, which has provided multiple-use opportunities for generations.

Instead, the threat is from a foreign gold-mining firm — Canada’s Excellon Resources — which has no interest in preserving any of that.

Excellon subsidiary Otis Gold is hoping this winter to secure U.S. Forest Service approval to resume their multi-year Kilgore Gold Exploration Project, which has been on hold while the Forest Service resolved deficiencies with its initial environmental assessment. Their goal: a 12,000-acre, Nevada-scale cyanide-based open-pit operation — which, they say, would be only the beginning.

Ground zero is in Caribou-Targhee National Forest’s Dubois Ranger District. There, streams flow from the project area into the habitat for Yellowstone cutthroat trout. They flow into West Camas Creek, then into Camas Meadows, Camas National Wildlife Refuge and Mud Lake Wildlife Management Area, the eastern Snake River Plain aquifer and the farmlands of eastern Idaho. Forest Service signs warn campers to use food storage, for this is bear country, including the occasional grizzly.

Idahoans have long benefited from access to these mountains via RV campsites, designated OHV trails and roads. Yet Excellon and Otis must ultimately close off, degrade and destroy all of this, for there is no other way to mine low-grade ore using cyanide. That’s why Montana, a mining-friendly state a few miles to the north, banned such mines.

For these companies, what matters is not Idaho and certainly not Idahoans. America’s gold is what matters, gold they could mine in appropriate places instead of this place. And under the 19th-century law that governs mining on U.S. lands, the Canadians could still take all the American gold they find without paying royalties to the American treasury. That’s the law.

Tragically, it is Excellon and Otis’ right to take this place from us and lock us out if the Dubois Ranger District approves. That’s because “public land” is a limited concept. Miners, even those from abroad, can easily claim what we think of as public land. They can and do lock us out and bring in out-of-state crews and huge machines to do the work. Here, they’ve already done both.

There is still some hope that we can keep this place. Caribou-Targhee in January released for public comment its draft environmental assessment of the exploratory project’s impacts, which are described as manageable for now. We have until Feb. 11 to urge Dubois District Ranger William G. Davis to find some lawful way to stand with Idaho for the long term and reject this dangerous land grab from afar.

To learn how you can read the assessment and comment, contact the Forest Service via email at diane.wheeler@usda.gov.

Tony Huegel, an Idaho Falls resident since 1985, is a former Post Register regional, agriculture and political reporter.